Peace and War, War and Peace

June 8, 2012

On June 5, 2012, Kirstin wrote the following comment to “Thoughts:  The End Games“:

Hi Rod.  This post was so beautiful.  I have no military experience or connections whatsoever, but clearly Suzanne Collins does and her portrayal of the costs of state-sponsored violence are what I love about the books.  She gets it, in every way possible.  I too love Katniss’ hope.

But I wanted to address your statement, “True, at one point Katniss did burn hot enough to vote to send the Capitol’s young to the same horrors she had endured.  But all it took was a smile from Snow, a reminder that they would never to lie to each other–and that fire went out.  Along with Coin’s.”

I deeply disagree with your reading of this passage.  I’ve lent my copy of “Mockingjay” to a friend so I can’t quote it to you, but it’s clear just before she votes that Katniss is aghast the suggestion than a punitive Games be held.  She wonders, “Was it like this 75 years ago?” when the decision to hold the Games was first made and then realizes that nothing will ever change.  To me it’s clear that she decides in that moment to assassinate Coin – not for Prim’s death but because of the future Coin intends for Panem, because Katniss now sees that Coin is Snow 2.0.  She agrees to the Games to placate Coin and to clear the way for Coin’s assassination; in other words, Katniss dupes Coin.  And Haymitch understands all of this.  He would not in a million years agree to another Games, after all he had seen and gone through.  Haymitch wasn’t there for Katniss when she needed to talk to someone about Coin’s potential involvement in the bombing of the children, but he comes through for her now, showing his intense loyalty to her and (I believe) knowing what she intends for Coin.

I’m a little surprised that you left out my favorite part of the books, right before Katniss is released after assassinating Coin, when she says that she will never again be convinced of the necessity of using weapons, never again be someone else’s pawn.  I don’t know that she becomes a pacifist exactly, but she is done with committing violence on behalf of the state, that much seems clear.

Thank you for your beautiful post!  To me, Suzanne Collins is a genius, always showing instead of telling.

Here’s my response:

Dear Kirstin,

Thank you for your beautiful comment as well!  As the weeks have pondered along, I had (sadly) put Katniss, Peeta, Finnick et al long out of my mind.  It’s good to be reminded of them and of their effect–or shall we say, Collins’ effect–on me.

First, let me say that my wife wholeheartedly agrees with your interpretation of the Katniss-Coin issue.  In fact, she had even told me that she had found the assassination to be anticlimactic, as she’d already assumed that the world was not big enough for both Katniss and Coin.  Consequently she had also assumed that Katniss was “playing for time” with her supposed acquiescence in the new Capitol Games.

I did go back to my copy of Mockingjay (the joys of Kindle, although you can’t share electronics!) and re-read that section.  First of all, I was surprised at how quickly the meeting led to the assassination, both in story time and in narration.  In my “keep reading, keep reading” haste the first go-around, I let that realization slide.  Consequently, unlike my wife–and apparently you–I was taken aback by Katniss’ section-ending action–even though, admittedly, the entire section had been entitled “The Assassin.”  (Ah, but really, who remembers stuff like that, you know?)

Second, I can certainly see from where both of you are coming.  I still maintain that there was something quite significant in Katniss’ and Snow’s final exchange of looks, but perhaps indeed it was only an acknowledgment of a decision already made, rather than a catalyst for a decision to be made.  Collins explicitly has Katniss considering all her options at the time of the meeting with Coin, so, indeed, perhaps one of those options was to spare the rose over Snow’s heart and instead target the icicle in Coin’s.

I will say this, though: we probably part ways vis-a-vis her being “done with committing violence on behalf of the state.”  I certainly don’t disagree with that statement.  Yet given that this thought occurs within the same paragraph in which she is contemplating suicide, I cannot quite experience this as a noble embrace (finally!) of the cause of peace.  Here’s the passage:

They can design dream weapons that come to life in my hands, but they will never again brainwash me into the necessity of using them.  I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despise being one myself.  I think that Peeta was on to something about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over.  Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.  You can spin it any way you like.  Snow thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control.  Coin thought the parachutes would expedite the war.  But in the end, who does it benefit?  No one.  The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.

It seems to me that at that point, Katniss was done with just about anything to do with anything.  She didn’t just see the State as the enemy.  Like Pogo, the comic strip character speaking in a war some forty years ago, yet a war still quite present today, she’d seen the enemy–and it is us.

I suspect that you and I experience Katniss quite differntly as a “heroine,” and I suspect that is why I had assumed that Katniss would consider a Capitol Games and would not be endorsing the way of nonviolence as a principle.  Granted, I do believe that she would embrace nonviolence as an answer, but more out of exhaustion than out of principle.

I guess I experienced her as I experience the combat veterans I see every day.

As I see it, it was Gale who embraced the concept of the State, from the very beginning.  He was the one to rail against the injustice of the oppressors.  While Katniss didn’t disagree with him, neither did she (at least from my reading) join him wholeheartedly in the cause.  Gale saw the big picture.  Katniss saw only the bigness of the picture, the picture of real people being destroyed, whether we’re talking Prim, the infirm of District Eight, or the asphyxiated, disgruntled of District Two.  She wasn’t giving up on the concept of the State.  She was giving up on the concept of a decent strand of humanity whatsoever.  (Cue Peeta, see infra.)

Combat veterans, at least from my day-to-day experience over the past three years, have very complex relationships with the Nation, with War, and with Peace.  None has seen War as a good, although almost all have seen War as a necessity.  Many continue to wrestle with the decisions they made whenever their “morals conflicted with their orders.”  Quite a few believe this particular conflict to have been misguided and fruitless.  Almost all believe that one must not–must not–go to war except in the most clear and even desperate of cases.

But that is no way in God’s green Earth to say that most of them think that what they did, what their buddies did, even (for the most part) what their commanders did was dishonorable.

No way, no how.

I do understand that some combat veterans feel just that.  I have heard them speak in the documentaries and films.  I have read their entries in the websites and blogs.

But I have met none, zero, zilch of these latter combat veterans in my three years at the VA in Indianapolis.

All remember a time when they felt honor.  Most–even after having witnessed the worst atrocities–still believe that there is honor somewhere.  But even more, most still believe that honor can be found in the military, in that prototypical arm of the Nation-State, the enforcer, the keeper of the way of violence.

They don’t brag about violence, not a man or woman.  They may remember their justifications for violence, but they don’t revel in them, not a man or woman (at least whom I’ve met).  They desire peace.  But they’re not afraid of conflict.  Armed conflict.  On behalf of the Nation-State, even.

But I will say this: many, many of them are too exhausted to care about the Nation-State, the eternal flame of Peace, the God-Bless-America wholeness of the local Cracker Barrel restaurant, the ticker-tape parades, the candlelight vigils, whether to the tune of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” or “We Shall Overcome.”  They’ve just seen too much.  Like Katniss, they have witnessed the monsters of the world, even been one themselves (let’s not forget Glimmer’s final encounter with her).  They just want to go home, if there even is a place that feels like home, even if it’s only their own personal ashes of District Twelve.

It does seem to me that many of my fellow progressives (for indeed, I count myself among them) feel a tremendous need to have combat veterans sign a pledge that “they ain’t gonna study war no more.”    Like the combat veterans I see every day, I don’t think that Katniss would be in any mood to study war no more–but just as she went to war so that Prim did not have to, just as she flamed brightly on the screens of rebel monitors throughout the land so that no other helpless wounded would be murdered, if the circumstances were to present themselves, I’m not at all convinced that she wouldn’t do it all over again, for Prim, for Rue, for Cinna.

I’ve yet to meet a combat veteran who feels that he or she was a hero.  All feel only that they did what they had to do to preserve what–but more importantly whom-they believed in.  And now most of them feel exhausted and confused, just as did Katniss as she returned to her comfortable home at the edge of a killing field.

What was my unforgettable incident?  Peeta’s words as he snatched the nightlock from Katniss’ hand: “I yank my head back in confusion,” she says, “to find myself looking into Peeta’s eyes, only now they hold my gaze. . .’Let me go!’ I snarl at him . . .’I can’t,’ he says.”

I can’t.

For Peeta, it was about love.  He killed for love.  He nearly died for love.  He groped his way back to sanity only because of love.  Katniss could no longer care about anything–except her mother, of course, but she wasn’t coming back, was she?  Let the State be the State, Plutarch be Plutarch, Haymitch be Haymitch, Gale be Gale.  Just leave her alone.  Love?  You serious?

Until a baker’s son planted a primrose.

Combat veterans, for the most part, will never–never–deny their service, even when they loathe what they had to do as part of it.  For in the end, no one dies for his or her country.  One dies for love.

May most combat veterans, as did Katniss, finally have the bravery to believe that one can, even after Games and Wars, again live for love.

For again, yes, if I may borrow one more time, Ms. Collins:  there are much worse things to live for.

3 responses

  1. Rod, it’s so hard to reply to you! Your posts are excellent and you have a wealth of experience I can’t draw on. What is my reading of one book compared to a decades of experience with veterans? Worse, we agree on a lot and our differences are subtle. But I’ll do my best!

    1. Regarding whether Katniss intended to kill Coin when she voted for the games, you seem to concede that there’s room for different interpretations. (But she totally did. Her receipt of Snow’s smile annoyed the crap out of her, because that arrow had been meant for him, but she held to her course.)

    2. Yes, Gale always was the believer in the State and Katniss never was. That’s a very good way of describing their fundamental difference. But I can think of other explanations as to why Katniss would feel that way, other than apathy or exhaustion. I think Katniss was always an ornery skeptic. She muses after listening to Plutarch excitedly talk about the possibility of a new democracy like there used to be that their ancestors weren’t much to brag about, that they had destroyed the earth. (Sorry! I can’t find the chapter number, but I’ll post it if I do.) Because she was never really a believer in the State, I never really thought of her as a soldier, either. She had to be dragged into basic training and her one mission was (ostensibly) a vanity mission. Her goal was always individual and self-serving – to kill Snow. So, when I read, “What are they doing, anyway?…How difficult can it be to arrange the execution of one murderous girl? I continue with my own annihilation,” I agree with you completely that Katniss is suicidal and has given up on humanity, but when I read, “And then a terrible thought hits me: What if they’re not going to kill me? What if they have more plans for me? A new way to remake, train, and use me? I won’t do it. If I can’t kill myself in this room, I will take the first opportunity outside of it to finish the job…They can design dream weapons that come to life in my hands, but they will never again brainwash me into the necessity of using them,” I hear anger and defiance, not just exhaustion. She is royally pissed, because on some level, she did believe that Coin would be an okay leader. Not a nice person, definitely, but not evil. She was willing to go along with Coin’s agenda until those two huge betrayals (the bombing of the children and the proposal of the punitive Games).

    You could be right, of course, that it’s just Katniss’ depression and fatigue talking, that if she had more to lose and more faith in humanity she wouldn’t take such a firm stand. But I think that a commitment to non-violence with respect to the State fits with Katniss’ personality and earlier skepticism (and her horrified reaction to Coin). She had her own ideas about what was right and was willing to go along with the new government as long as it didn’t radically violate her principles. Once it did…she became an assassin. A broken, suicidal assassin, but still an assassin. (Otherwise she would have killed herself before killing Coin, right?)

    Let me know if we’re talking past each other, but thank you so much for the conversation!

  2. It was on p. 84, end of chapter 6. 🙂

    “‘If we win, who would be in charge of the government?’ Gale asks.
    ‘Everyone,’ Plutarch tells him. ‘We’re going to form a republic where the people of each district and the Capitol can elect their own representatives to be their voice in a centralized government. Don’t look so suspicious; it’s worked before.’
    ‘In books,’ Haymitch mutters. [See how he and Katniss are besties? 😉 ]
    ‘In history books,’ says Plutarch. ‘And if our ancestors could do it, then we can, too.’

    Frankly, our ancestors don’t seem much to brag about. I mean, look at the state they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly they didn’t care about what would happen to the people who came after them. But this republic idea sounds like an improvement over our current government.”

    Tentatively, she’s on board, but she has her doubts. That’s understandable, though, given what they’ve all lived through!

  3. You know, I’m realizing that it all comes down to intent. If Katniss intended to kill Coin, then I’m right, she’s a heroic, tragic figure who took out the bad guy then tried to off herself. If Katniss didn’t intend to kill Coin (if she killed Coin impulsively), then: 1) she voted sincerely for another Hunger Games, and 2) she allowed herself to continue to be used by Coin right up until the last minute when Snow’s smile snapped her out of it and convinced her to kill Coin. Rod, we both agree that Katniss ends up in District 12 broken, apathetic, and wishing she could die. But I think she got there via betrayal, anger, and a sense of having accomplished what needed to be done. It looks like her heroism and agency hinge on that small detail: intent. Fascinating, isn’t it? 🙂

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